Posts Tagged ‘definitions’

Ideas of Choice

Monday, 11 November 2019

I have been more actively working on the decision-theory paper off of which the probability paper was spun. And this effort has me thinking about the meanings of choice.

As I noted in an earlier entry to this 'blog, my paper on indecision used choice to mean no more or less than selection. I defined relations of preference in terms of choice functions, which are functions that select a subset from a set of options. Defining relations of preference in this manner seems to explain preference in terms of something called choice rather than explaining the thing called choice in terms of preference. But something called choice is often said to result from preference. Certainly, we want somehow to explain selection by persons of alternatives (even if that which explains cannot itself be observed directly!), and some notion of preference represents an attempt at explanation.

(However, if preference is the proper explanation, then preference must be very changeable; much of real-world behavior does not conform to a constant set of preferences. And people do such things as regularly selecting {A} from a set {A, B, C} yet consistently selecting {B} from a set {A, B, D}; perhaps in such cases we can still contrive an explanation in terms of preference, but we should be dubious of such explanation. I don't think that we should reject the word choice if the selections that people actually make aren't driven by preference. If preference does not provide a proper explanation, then perhaps some more general concept does. And perhaps by teasing-out what people intend by the word choice when they intend something narrower than selection, we can arrive at that generalization. That's one of the reasons that I sometimes press some people, especially fellow economists, to tell me what they intend by the word choice or by coördinate terms, when they reject its application where it seems to me to fit. I'm not trying to catch them in error or Socratically to teach a lesson to them; I'm trying to engage with them in an important investigation. But, important doubts about the use of preference in descriptive theory not withstanding, preference makes considerable sense in prescriptive use. Indeed, that sense in prescriptive use is one of the reasons that we so easily accept it in descriptive use, and even assures us that it must at least approximate a realistic description fairly well, because unreasonable behavior is costly.)

Identification of a preference is sometimes itself called choice; but sometimes preference is instead expressed in terms of whom or of what one would choose, if given the choice; and, sometimes, after a preference is expressed, the response is something such as You don't get to make that choice! In conscious identification of a preference, one selects an ideation; in reporting such an identification, one selects an utterance; and these ideations or utterances are selected in a different way than are their subjects, except in odd, self-referential cases.

In discussion of decision-making in a world of uncertainty, I've found use for an idea that I call practical choice, by which I mean selection of an option which selection causes that option to be effected with certainty.

In a world without uncertainty, there would be a simple division between what one could attain and what one could not. Preference amongst the unattainable would ex definitione be without practical significance. Discussion of preference amongst the possible would be operationally equivalent to discussion of practical choice, and rational agents would always attain that possible state-of-the-world that they most desired.

When we begin to speak and write of uncertainty, we are actually speaking and writing of cases in which we may make practical choices amongst options that would, in turn, affect the state-of-the-world in imperfectly predictable ways. Hypothetically, I might not care about those effects; I might only care about the options that I can practically choose; but, with those options properly identified, that hypothetical is highly implausible and sterile. And, otherwise, it now becomes quite relevant to consider the difference and relationship between preferences amongst things that are subject to practical choice and preferences amongst things that are not subject to practical choice. Preferences amongst things that an agent cannot practically choose will determine preferences amongst things that she can.

(Our practical choices are more limited than some might at first realize. An agent has practical choice of no more than some mental states; and selecting amongst these mental states delivers no more power over other possibilities than to increase or decrease the probabilities of those possibilities. Given the selection of one mental state, one's arm is more likely to move, but there is at least some terrible possibility that it will not. Indeed, given the selection of one mental state, one is more likely to recall a desired datum, but there is a possibility that one will not. Still, in many cases we might, without doing too much violence to realism, pretend that our practical choices include operations that we think almost surely to follow upon our exercise of actual practical choice. For example, one might calculate as if one had a practical choice of whether to propose marriage, while acknowledging that one did not have a practical choice over whether one would marry the other party.)

The concern of my paper on indecision was in identifying a difference in observable behavior distinguishing indecision from indifference, and I didn't want that distinction to be simply self-reported. When an agent was undecided between X and Y rather than indifferent, I needed a difference in selection from a set in which X and Y options, rather than a difference in selection amongst utterances or somesuch. In hindsight, I wish that, in that paper, I'd discussed conceptions of choice more than I did, and had explicitly written of practical choice. Perhaps accordingly I will someday revise the working version of the paper.

Sowing Pseudo-Scientific Seeds of Racism

Thursday, 2 August 2018

I have previously expressed great concern about journalists confusing the categorization of a people as H. sapiens with their being human. Bodies Keep Shrinking on this Island, and Scientists Aren't Sure Why, a story in the New York Times, offers yet another illustration of this confusion. Within it, Carl Zimmer writes:

The researchers found that a very small percentage of the villagers' DNA came from Neanderthals or Denisovans. A tiny portion could not be matched to humans, Neanderthals or Denisovans.

But these enigmatic pieces weren’t dramatically different from human DNA, as you’d expect if they had come from Homo floresiensis. Dr. Tucci concluded that the Rampasasa villagers have no Homo floresiensis ancestry.

Note that, once again, Neanderthals and Denisovans are distinguished by a journalist from humans, as are now those of H. floresiensis. No reason is given for classifying any of these people as not human; the journalist has simply inferred that they are not because they have been classified as of a different species; what that classification actually means is utterly unconsidered.

Further, in the article, modern populations are noted to have differing occurrences of presence of DNA from the supposedly inhuman populations — not dramatically inhuman, but supposedly inhuman none-the-less.

Let me make it very plain: Mr Zimmer and the New York Times are offering pseudo-science with racist implications. He probably doesn't intend those implications, but is simply thoughtless. However, his thoughtlessness and that of his editors are inexcusable. And, if he had any conversations with the scientists who conducted these studies, then I'd like to know why the Hell they failed to impress upon him that the taxonomy did not separate people into humans and non-humans. These scientists did not have the prerogative of unscientifically presuming that Mr Zimmer had more intelligence than has been actually demonstrated by the typical journalist.

On the Meaning of Sexism

Thursday, 11 May 2017

In a previous entry, I noted that the original definition of racism was a theory or an adherence to a theory that merit is in part intrinsically a function of race. It was exactly by analogy with the word racism that the word sexism was introduced in 1968, thus referring to a theory or an adherence to a theory that merit is in part intrinsically a function of sex.

Now, here is where matters get tricky. In any case in which one rejects sexism, it is regarded as an inappropriate response to the sex of people; and, in particular, the treatment is likely to be seen as unethical. A very great many folk employ the concept of unethical response to the sex of people as if that were the very definition of sexism. That notion is going to operationalize very much like the actual definition whenever and wherever the issue at hand is one of ethics and ethics actually call for neutrality — for a rejection of the relevance of sex to the issue. But nearly all of us regard people of one sex as better suited to some rôles that are of importance. For example, if I presume that sexism must refer to something unethical, then I am compelled either to associate sexism with something other than neutrality of a sort, or as a matter of justice to try to entertain thoughts of accepting a man as a potential spouse for myself. (People are led astray by the analogy with racism; the cases in which sex is relevant to selection loom larger because of the importance of reproduction.) And the substituted notion is not going to operationalize at all like the original definition exactly when someone believes that merit is a function of sex in a far wider range of cases than do folk such as I; then the substitution is going to get things almost perfectly twisted around. He or she will label anti-sexism as sexism and will label some sort of sexism — perhaps quite an intense sexism — as anti-sexism.

The spurning of a claim of relevance is the maintenance or adoption of indifference. This indifference is an equality of one sort — and we often see the words equal and equality used in antonymy to sexism — but it is not an equality of various other sorts. Advancement of a conflicting equality would itself be sexist. Such conflicting equalities can arise when the equality sought is equality of outcome. If people, regardless of sex, may be presumed to respond to a framework in essentially identical ways, and we observe markèdly different outcomes for one sex compared to those for another, then this difference is prima facie evidence that the framework is sexist. But if it is recognized that people of one sex behave differently in that framework, then the presumption that the framework is sexist does not follow from the mere presence of a difference. If we say that the different behaviors must be treated as of equal merit because otherwise a difference in outcomes emerges, then the merit that is ascribed to the behavior is treated as a function of the sex of the people who engage in that behavior; that prescription is itself intrinsically sexist.

For example, the rates at which men are arrested for, charged with, and convicted of criminal behavior of various sorts are much higher than the corresponding rates at which women are arrested, charged, and convicted. We cannot conclude simply from these differences that the system of criminal law is sexist, because it may be that men simply engage in that behavior more often; indeed, most of us are fairly sure that this latter case holds. If we insist that the behaviors themselves must be decriminalized in order to reduce the rates at which men are arrested, charged, and convicted, then we are inferring the relative merit of the behavior from the sexes of those who engage in it. The very same sort of analysis would apply to hiring practices and to the wages or salaries paid to those in various occupations.[1]

(Many people, including certainly me, would argue that an unfortunate sexism prior to whatever exists in the legal system is one factor contributing to greater criminality by men, but few-if-any people propose that part of an appropriate response would be an adjustive sexism, giving more tolerance to male criminalized behavior than to female criminalized behavior. Likewise, some of us assert that an unfortunate sexism prior to whatever exists in the jobs market is one factor leading to different career outcomes for women, but we don't propose an adjustive sexism attempting to compel employers to pay women more than the expected values of their marginal products.)

The confused presumptions that only an unethical discrimination can count as sexism and that sexism is found where there is some sort of inequality other than non-neutralityan attention to sex — causes people in all sincerity to misapply the word sexism and to fail to see legitimate application of the word, perhaps to their own attitudes and actions. If substitutions of these sorts are not recognized by those who use the word sexism in accordance with its definition, then interactions will be characterized by mutual incomprehension, quite possibly enraged. Attempts to employ logic and facts won't be persuasive because one of the two groups will actively misunderstand a word central to any communication. Additionally, there are people who implicitly believe that ethical significance clings to symbols, such that by changing labels what was wrong may be made to be right and vice versa. In dealing with them, the principal point that ought to be made is not that words cannot be redefined, but that, if we should for any reason redefine sexism, then whatever case was made against what was originally called sexism isn't thereby logomantically transformed into a case against whatever is now to be called sexism, nor is a case against something that was originally called sexism somehow invalidated by ceasing to call it by that name.[2] Of course, there are also those who effect the substitution as a device of unconscious projection, and others who opportunistically seek to sow further confusion.


[1] In the absence of a coherent explanation otherwise, if any population really could be hired at bargain rates, then not only should we expect all members of that population to be hired before any members of any other population; we should expect employers to bid-up the wages and salaries of this less expensive population to the point that they matched those of other populations, before hiring any members of those other populations. If there is some occupation such that the cost of hiring workers for it is notably less than the expected values of their marginal products, then we should expect employers to increase their hirings for those occupations, and in doing so (each in competition with the others and in the face of otherwise ever more reluctant workers) to bid-up the wages or salaries of those workers until the difference disappears.

[2] The same principle of course applies to efforts to redefine racism.

λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια;

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Years ago, National Lampoon had a monthly column that they entitled True Facts. The title was a joke, not because the contents weren't true (they were an assembly of extraödinary news reports), but because facts cannot be untrue; something untrue is not a fact. Yet many people in various contexts were using terms such as actual fact, real fact, and true fact, almost as if it were possible for some facts to be false, imaginary, unreal. People still do, perhaps even more often. One can find lots of instances of people using imaginary fact; sometimes they do so ironically, but more often they are quite serious. By imaginary fact they mean a proposition that may be untrue, is likely to be untrue, or simply is untrue. In this retasking of the word fact, they've lost the use of the word to talk about facts, unless they add a word such as true. But, with that change in meaning, it not only becomes possible to use a term such as alternative fact to refer to a rival claim, but it becomes harder to see that untrue rival claims don't have equal standing with true rival claims, as they are all supposedly facts.

We aren't at all helped here that a great many people don't understand the words true and truth. That's not simply a problem of vocabulary. Truth is a hard concept, because it entails a meta-propositional act of mapping from a proposition back to itself. That is to say that, in most cases when we apply the word true or equivalent and certainly in the case of true facts, we are explicitly or implicitly making a proposition about a proposition. When we say It's true that I went to the store, that actual referent of the grammatic subject is not I, but the proposition that I went to the store, yet the upshot of this sentence is merely what would be conveyed in saying I went to the store. We perhaps don't need this device of recasting a proposition (I went to the store) as a meta-proposition (It is true that I went to the store), but it is useful because we are not omniscient, and must entertain propositions that are uncertain or discovered to be false; the concept of truth complements the conditions of falsehood and of uncertainty. Yet it is very hard to see that function, exactly because we use the concept to discuss itself. Truth is more easily named than described, if indeed a description is possible.

The difficulty in understanding the nature of truth makes it psychologically easier to embrace such notions as that all aspects of of past, present, and future are simply artefacts of individual belief or of group belief (expressed with formulæ such as truth is a social construct) or that what one wants or ought to want is to be treated a true. The word fact may then be used for components of narratives; embracing one narrative is seen as licensing one to accept propositions as fact that are alternative to components of rival narratives, and to reject propositions for no better reason than that they participate in rival narratives. Evolution of narratives is seen as licensing one to change the status of a proposition from fact to falsehood, or vice versa, even when discussing history. And we may even observe those socially identified as fact-checkers testing claims against narratives which are themselves never fact-checked, because the checkers implictly treat their favored narratives as the ultimate determinant of fact.

When Pilate asked What is truth?, perhaps he was truly curious as to the nature of truth, but he may merely have been asking why he should give a damn about it. Our political leaders have become ever more disdainful of truth. They have long offered us alternative facts, and their followers in each of our major political tribes and in most of the smaller groups as well have decided that, for them, these are the facts. Now we have an Administration that does so more baldly and less artfully. One might hope that this practice will explode on them; but, even if that explosion should happen, their opponents are likely to see an expansion of the envelope within which they may disregard the facts.

Recognizing the Difference

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The word problem is used for multiple concepts:

  • a challenge, especially a mental challenge
  • an unhappy state of affairs that exercises the mind
  • a seemingly insurmountable difficulty

These may actually be very different things, because some states-of-affairs may be changed, and some may not; but it is often hard to distinguish the former from the latter. Thence we use the same word for all three concepts, and thence we get the famous Serenity Prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

A good economist is going to note that sometimes the costs of changing what we can would be higher than the benefit. Properly understood, that greater costs would mean that we were trading some greater problem for a solution to the problem under immediate consideration. The Serenity Prayer might lead one to mistake sensible calculation for cowardice, though poetry might have to be sacrificed to provide better guidance.

Still, the distinction between that which we can change and that which we cannot is most fundamental, and confusion between the two is a source of frustration and of anguish. That which displeases us and which we can change is a challenge about which we can usefully exercise the mind, until such time as either we develop a reasonable method of changing things or we recognize that it's not worth the cost. That which displeases us and which we cannot change is an unhappy condition of existence; and — ideally — we ought to come to terms with that condition, to accept it, so that it no longer exercises our minds. (And we ought, similarly, to accept those states the changing of which, though possible, truly would be too costly.)

One seldom-noted root of some of the confusion is a failure to distinguish between what the person in question may change and what someone else may change. The state-of-affairs might be a problem for a person who could change it, or it might not be a problem for that person; but, either way, by someone who cannot change it, it is best treated as a condition of existence.

It may be especially hard to see the distinction when the other person might indeed act to change things and, if that other person did, the first person would want to undertake quickly some course of action. But, likewise, there might be some potential event which would have to be impersonally caused (if at all) and which would call for a prompt response. One should not try to cause that which no person can cause, and one should not try to cause that which only another person can cause, even if there would be things to do should it happen.

It may be too much to hope for serenity from such realizations. It is certainly too much to demand that others be serene in the face of indifference, indecision, or madness on the part of those around them. Sometimes grim acceptance is the best that one can manage.

On the Economists' use of Rent*

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Ordinary language typically uses rent to mean a recurring payment for the use of some good or service, especially for the use of land. The word has various other meanings in ordinary language; but, in economics, rent is used to mean something given in exchange, above and beyond what would have been the minimum necessary to effect the exchange in the absence of some restraint of trade. Usually, this concept is applied to pecuniary payment for a good or service above and beyond the minimum necessary to get that good or service, but one should see that exchanges without money might still involve such increased payment of one good or service for another, and that the same basic idea could be applied to cases in which someone were compelled to deliver more of a good or service than the minimum otherwise necessary to secure some amount of money.


It's mostly because of David Ricardo (18 April 1772 – 11 September 1823), an influential economist, that rent has this meaning. Ricardo used the word rent to refer to payment for the indestructible powers of land. That is to say that rent meant payment for the use of those properties of land that were not diminished by use; payment for harvesting things such as preëxisting plants and minerals would not, strictly speaking, be rent. Perhaps the only thing that could literally meet this criterion would be specific area, but Ricardo favored simplified models, so one might consider highly durable or naturally renewed properties as indestructible.

In Ricardo's mind, if someone renting land were given a right to cut down trees already on the land, or to quarry marble from it, then this right were essentially of the same sort as the right of someone buying lumber or stone at a mill; we certainly don't label the prices of such commodities as rent. Ricardo wanted to identify what were distinctive and essential in what we called rent, and to reserve the word rent just for those components of payments.

Ricardo imagined land as of different qualities, even when viewed only in terms of indestructible properties, but imagined the existing quantities of lands of each quality as not something ever increased by human action. And, in the context of his models, he concluded that rent were not determined by its cost of manufacture nor otherwise by some minimum below which the land-owner could not afford to produce it; rent, according to Ricardo, were purely an artefact of monopoly in the provision of land.

So long as this belief prevailed, it was natural for economists to extend the use of the word rent to other payments which they regarded as perfectly analogous. The word rent came to stand for any payment above and beyond the minimum necessary to effect an exchange were there a non-monopolistic market. And, even when most economists moved away from Ricardo's theory, as classical economics yielded to more thorough-going marginalism, they held onto this extended use of the term rent.


Because this use of rent can certainly be confusing, both when economists are interacting with lay-persons and when economists are attempting to discuss markets in which commodities are leased, sometimes instead of the bald word rent, they use the term economic rent. (This solution is imperfect, as that term can in ordinary language refer to a leasing payment which is in some sense reasonable for a lessee or potential lessee to bear.)


Economic rent, and the pursuit of rent — called rent-seeking — are considered quite important by most economists.

Rent-seeking, perhaps often unconscious but certainly almost never acknowledged, is wide-spread, and explains a very great deal of the political process.

Rents cannot be paid unless they are paid by someone; often, those paying them do not even realize that they are bearing these costs, or mistake their sources. Worse, rents typically transfer wealth inefficiently, with more lost by whoever is made to pay the rent than would be lost by some other transfer mechanism. Still worse, rent-seeking imposes costs even when it is unsuccessful.


Within a neo-classical framework, rent (or economic rent) might be alternately be defined as something given in exchange, above and beyond the opportunity cost of producing that for which it is exchanged. When the frequent assumptions of complete preferences, continuous divisibility of goods and of services, and ignorability of small costs hold, this new definition is equivalent to the original definition. But, exactly because one ought not to over-commit to those assumptions, it is best not to adopt the alternate definition as such.

I have encountered professors of economics asserting things to be rents that certainly were not. For example, one simply declared that the salary of a specific basketball player were a rent, but the professor had lost himself in a taxonomy which imagined the player simply as playing basketball or as idling. In fact, the player could have played for teams other than the one that hired him, and could have applied his abilities to something other than playing in professional basketball. If there were a rent in his salary, it may not even have been the major portion.


* This entry is primarily infrastructural. I want to be able to refer to rent and to rent-seeking in later entries, without there defining the associated terms.

Humpty Dumpty, Prescriptivism, and Linguistic Evolution

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

In Chapter 6 of Through the Looking Glass by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (writing as Lewis Carroll), a famous and rather popular position on language is taken:

When I use a word, Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

If Mr Dumpty's words simply mean whatever he intends them to mean, then the rest of us are not in a position to understand them. If he provides us with verbal definitions, we must know what the defining words mean. He could not even declare in a manner intelligible to us that he meant most words in the same sense as do you or I. We might attempt to tease-out meanings by looking for correlations, but then we would be finding meanings as correlations, which assumes properties (such as stability) that represent more than pure choice on the part of Mr Dumpty. Having been made perfectly private, his vocabulary as such would have no practical value except for internal dialogue. There is a paradox here, which Dodgson surely saw, yet which so very many people don't: If Mr Dumpty's apparent declaration were true, then it could not be understood by us. He might actually just be making some claim about breakfast. We might take (or mistake) his claim for a true proposition (that his vocabulary were purely idiosyncratic), but any co-incidence between his intention and our interpretation would be a result of chance. We could not actually recognize it for whatever proposition it actually expressed.

In order to communicate thoughts with language to other persons, we must have shared presumptions not only about definitions of individual words, but also about grammar. The more that such presumptions are shared, the more that we may communicate; the more fine-grained the presumptions, the more precise the communication possible. In the context of such presumptions, there are right ways of using language in attempt to communicate — though any one of these ways may not be uniquely right or even uniquely best — and there are ways that are wrong.

Those who believe that there are right ways and wrong ways to use language are often called prescriptivist, and generally by those who wish to treat prescriptism as wrong-headed or as simply a position in no way superior to the alternatives. Yet, while one could find or imagine specific cases where the beliefs concerning what is right or wrong in language-use were indeed wrong-headed, forms of prescriptivism follows logically from a belief that it is desirable for people to communicate, and especially from a belief that communication is, typically speaking, something rather a lot of which is desirable. As a practical matter, altogether rejecting prescriptivism is thoughtless.

To the extent that the same presumptions of meaning are shared across persons, the meanings of words are independent of the intentions of any one person. Meanings may be treated as adhering to the words themselves. Should Mr Dumpty take a great fall, from which recovery were not possible, still his words would mean exactly what they meant when he uttered them. A very weak prescriptivism would settle there, with the meaning of expressions simply being whatever were common intention in the relevant population. This prescriptivism is so weak as not often to be recognized as prescriptivism at all; but even it says that there is a right and wrong within the use of language.

Those more widely recognized as prescriptivists want something rather different from rude democracy. In the eyes of their detractors, these prescriptivists are dogmatic traditionalists or seeking to creäte or to maintain artificial elites; such prescriptivists have existed and do exist. But, more typically, prescriptivism is founded on the belief that language should be a powerful tool for communication as such. When a typical prescriptivist encounters and considers a linguistic pattern, his or her response is conditioned by concern for how it may be expected to affect the ability to communicate, and not merely in the moment, but how its acceptance or rejection will affect our ability to understand what has been said in the past and what will be said in the future. (Such effects are not confined to the repetition of specific pattern; other specific patterns may arise from analogy; which is to say that general patterns may be repeated.) Being understood is not considered as licensing patterns that will cause future misunderstandings.

In opposing the replacement of can with the negative can't in can hardly, the typical prescriptivist isn't fighting dogmatically nor to oppress the downtrodden, nor merely concerned to protect our ability to refer to the odd-ball cases to which can't hardly with its original sense applies; rather, the prescriptivist is trying to ward-off a more general chaos in which we can hardly distinguish negation from affirmation. (Likewise for the positive could care less standing where the negative couldn't care less would be proper.) When the prescriptivist objects to using podium to refer to a lectern, it's so that we continue to understand prior use and so that we don't lose a word for the exact meaning that podium has had. We already have a word for lecterns, and we can coin new words if there is a felt need for more.

The usual attempt to rebut prescriptivism of all sorts notes that language evolves. Indeed it does, but prescriptivisms themselves — of all sorts — play rôles in that evolution. When a prescriptivist objects to can't hardly being used where can hardly would be proper, he or she isn't fighting evolution itself but participating in an evolutionary struggle. Sometimes traditional forms are successfully defended; sometimes old forms are resurrected; sometimes deliberate innovations (as opposed to spontaneous innovations) are widely adopted. Sometimes the results have benefitted our ability to communicate; sometimes they have not; but all these cases are part of the dynamic of real-world linguistic evolution.

The Evolution Card is not a good one to play in any event. Linguistic evolution may be inevitable, but it doesn't always represent progress. It will not even tend to progress without an appropriate context. Indeed, sometimes linguistic evolution reverses course. For example: English arose from Germanic languages, in which some words were formed by compounding. But English largely abandoned this characteristic for a time, only to have it reïntroduced by scholarly contact with Classical Greek and Latin. (That's largely why our compounds are so often built of Greek or Latin roots, whereäs those of Modern German are more likely to be constructed with Germanic roots.) It was evolution when compounding was abandoned, and evolution when it was reädopted. If compounding were good, then evolution were wrong to abandon it; if compounding were bad, then evolution were wrong to reëstablish it. And one cannot logically leap from the insight that evolution is both inevitable and neither necessarily good nor necessarily bad to the conclusion that any aspect of linguistic practice is a matter of indifference, that nothing of linguistic practice is good or bad. One should especially not attempt to apply such an inference peculiarly to views on practice that one dislikes.

Social Consequences of Speciation

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Sometimes, I don't know how to write about important matters. Please bear with me, because this subject is far more important than it might initially seem.

When most people encounter the word species, it is either in the context of a biological discussion, or the word is used as a metaphorical borrowing from discussion of that sort. It actually has more general meanings, the broadest simply being class of things of shared characteristics. But what concerns me here is indeed its biological sense.

Most people who have any notion at all of the word derive their understanding of the biological signification from a combination of observed use and whatever was told to them by middle- and high-school texts of alleged science. Many of them know that organisms are categorized hierarchically, and that species is a finer category than genus. But, if asked to describe the classification of animals as different, say, as are cats and dogs, far more people would descibe them as of different species than as of different family or as of different genus. There is an inferred sense that difference in species is rather fundamental.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives the biological sense thus:

A taxonomic grouping ranking next below genus and subgenus, which contains organisms that are uniquely distinguished from others by certain shared characteristics and usu. by an inability to interbreed with members of other such groupings; such a grouping as denoted by a Latin binomial, and freq. subdivided into subspecies, races, varieties, etc.; the organisms of such a grouping.

That bit about inability to interbreed is a bit loose; for example, most biologists would classify horses and donkeys as of different species, though they can produce offspring. However, a striking characteristic of those offspring is that they cannot themselves produce further offspring. The infertility of those offspring is usually cited towards explaining the speciation.

In any case, The SOED hedged with that usu. because some biologists categorize animals as of different species though they can interbreed down through indefinitely many generations, as in the case of coyotes (C. latrans) with wolves (C. lupus).

Over some decades, anthropologists disagreed over whether to classify Neanderthalers as a distinct species, H. neanderthalensis, or as a sub-species of H. sapiens. As there was no way to observe potential interbreeding, early disagreement turned on issues of overt morphology — the shapes of skulls, dentition, &c. But then interbreeding became, in a sense, potentially observable as it became possible to extract and analyze DNA from remains of Neanderthalers. Initial results (quite surprising to me) suggested no interbreeding, and it became more commonly accepted that they should be considered a distinct species. However, when later genetic evidence began to show the presence of Neanderthaler genes in some modern populations of H. sapiens, the practice of treating them as a distinct species was not universally abandoned. It is still common to classify Neanderthalers as a distinct species, though this implicitly means that species is not being used with the usu. signification. And when, far more recently, a similar archaïc population, the Denisovans, were distinguished, it became fairly common also to categorize them as a distinct species, though their genes are likewise found in some modern populations of H. sapiens.

But, again, when most lay-people hear or read the word species, they are imagining a quite significant distinction. And when they hear and read of Neanderthalers or of Denisovans as distinct species, they infer that these people were not human. Here are three example articles that I quickly found of journalists doing just that in the case of Neanderthalers or in that of Denisovans:

As these archaïc populations are extinct, there may not seem to be any more of a social issue here than there typically is with misunderstood science. But a problem is coming right at us. And it's associated with the point that the genes of archaïc populations are found in modern populations — in different distributions. Take, for example, this article:

The author or authors blithely refer to the Neanderthalers, to the Denisovans, and to an additional, hypothesized archaïc population as distinct species without explaining whatever is there meant by the term. A large share of readers will regard the archaïc populations as not fully human, and infer that different ethnic groups have more or less genetic material that is not fully human. It will be inappropriately inferred that some ethnic groups are thus less human or more human than are others.

Anthropologists and biologists who talk with lay-persons, and especially with journalists and with other informal educators, need to emphasize the arbitrariness in use of the word species, and these scientists need to impress upon their audiences that the word should be avoided or explained in all popular-science journalism that touches upon our relationships with archaïc populations.

On the Meaning of Racism

Monday, 3 October 2016

The original definition of racism, and the one still found in standard dictionaries, is a theory or an adherence to a theory that merit is in part intrinsically a function of race

However, a few decades ago, some social theorists began insisting upon a new definition of racism, under which one could not be called a racist unless one not only were prejudiced against some racial group, but had social power. Devotees of this new definition variously baldly restate it, as if the restatement makes it so, or cite the theorists, as if such citation makes it so.

Those who make a special study of a subject sometimes take a term in popular use, and give it a peculiar, somewhat new definition. (For examp!e, we see that in physics, with the uses of energy, force, and work; and we see that in economics, with the definition of unemployment.) But what usually characterizes these redefinitions is that somewhat loose notions are replaced with more explicit, more precise, and otherwise more workable definitions. (For example, when an economist uses unemployment, she usually excludes people who have quit one job for another, but have not yet started that next job, because joblessness of this transitory sort is not typically considered to be a social ill.)

Alarms really ought to go-off about the redefinition of racism. The original concept was quite coherent and useful; if it were not coherent, then the redefinition (which essentially adds a condition) would inherit the incoherence. Racism on the part of people with little social power still has significant social consequences; any legitimate use of the new concept is far more sharply limited than that of the original concept.

Let's imagine that someone prejudiced against those outside his own major racial group makes a solo walking tour of Los Angeles. As he travels from one neighborhood to another, he gains or loses social power as the ethnic compositions of those neighborhoods vary. His beliefs about the relation between race and merit needn't change (and should not be expected to do so much if at all). Yet by the mere act of travel through a large city in which ethnic groups are not uniformly distributed, under the redefinition he would repeatedly go from being a racist, to not being a racist, to again being a racist. It would be extraordinary and dangerous to make a solo walking tour of all of Los Angeles, but a great many people regularly move across communities of different ethnic composition. Application of the proposed redefinition of racism would routinely become unworkable, under circumstance in which the standard definition remains quite workable.

There are certainly legitimate applications of the concept of socially empowered racism, but in those applications we can call it socially empowered racism or something similar.

When a concept loses its associated symbol, it becomes harder to discuss or even to think about that concept. Further, the response to symbols is largely emotive. Whether people learn by reason that something is good or that it is bad, or they are simply led to accept some valuation by imitation of those in their society, people come to associate positive or negative feelings with the words used for those things. Old concepts given new words don't provoke the same response; old symbols given new meanings carry with them some or all of the old feelings. Those who have adopted a new redefinition of racism can thus escape the recognition of racism, and the felt need to condemn some instances of racism, by allowing themselves to believe that some people simply cannot be racists, by virtue of their social standing.

We are simply dealing with an attempted hijacking of language, for purposes of subverting clear thought and discussion. That is most plain when the word racism has been introduced into some discourse with its standard definition, and in response it is insisted that something conforming to that original definition is not racism because it does not conform to the proposed redefinition. But any non-standard use that is not flagged as such is still a subversion of rationality. Those who have participated in the attempted hijacking are knaves or fools or both.

Common Sense about Names and about Descriptions

Monday, 1 February 2016

The entry in Sibley's Birds for Common Raven begins Uncommon.

This case illustrates the important distinction between names and descriptions. Common raven is a name; it was surely intended to be a name that worked as a description, but it presently fails as the latter while continuing to be the former.

A description can be usefully analyzed. It has components, each of which has independent meaning, and considering those meanings allows one better to understand the thing described.

A name as such is not analyzed; sometimes it might usefully be analyzed; sometimes it cannot be analyzed; sometimes analysis is misleading (as in common raven).

Often, what we call description is no more than naming. For example, if someone points to something and asks What is that?, and I say an urn, then all that I have really done is to provide a name, perhaps trusting the other person to know what urn means. On the other hand, if I say an ancient urn or a ceramic urn or an empty urn, then I have described it (though surely not as thoroughly as it might be described).

Notice that all description is constructed of names. The audience might subsequently ask for descriptions corresponding to names used, but eventually one reaches a point at which the names are of things that cannot be described (though alternative names might be offered).

Occasionally, I read something mocking someone for not understanding a description, such that a more perspicacious observer would recognize that the someone being mocked was treating the description as a name. This error may be no more foolish than wondering whether the common raven is a common bird.